7 Tips on Training Software

In my experience, training someone to use software is one of the more difficult types of training to create effectively. It is so easy to be boring, use technical jargon, extend the training too long, or fall into the dreaded “trying to be funny but come across as terribly cheesy” trap.

Throughout my career I’ve trained, or been trained, on software scores of times. While learning software I’ve fallen asleep, walked away with a commitment to figure it out on my own later, and been wow’ed by an 8-hour training session. As an instructor I’ve lost classes in the first five minutes, fallen asleep (yes, I put myself to sleep once,) and made significant impacts on the work lives of my class.

So, what is it that makes software training move from the dull drudgery of cleaning grout with a toothbrush, to the exciting adrenaline rush of flying in the backseat of a fighter jet?

Nothing. It’s software training.

But you can certainly make it better than cleaning grout. Here are some tips to help you on your next project:

  1. Tell them Why. Adults want to know why this training applies to them, so be up front with that. Don’t use boiler plate statements about how this software will make their daily jobs easier either. Be specific. For example, instead of saying “by the end of this training you’ll understand how to use Microsoft Outlook more efficiently” say this: “by the end of this training you’ll be capable of creating folders and rules to help you manage your email more efficiently, and be able to use Outlook like a pro. This will give you more time in your day not dealing with the email monster.”
  2. Be Practical. Like all other training, getting adults to engage works best when they understand and see how they can apply the training to their lives immediately. Software’s ultimate purpose is to make our lives easier; to perform some task that otherwise would be significantly more difficult for us. The best way to grab a learner’s attention and keep them engaged throughout the training is to constantly solve their problems. Give a lot of practical tips that shortcut longer processes, make tasks easier, or help users understand complicated actions easier. You can even purposefully plan to space these tips out so you have built-in engagement bumps throughout the lesson.
  3. Keep it Short! Especially when giving web-based training, but also when teaching in-person, keep training segments short. How ‘short’ is defined can be rather subjective, so let’s look at the principle behind it. The average adult attention span when engaged in a learning activity they feel is important is about 12 minutes. This drops off exponentially if you haven’t performed #1-2 correctly. YouTube recommends no videos over 4 minutes in length due to the significant viewership drop-off they see when videos are longer. Those videos would fall into the ‘entertainment’ category most of the time, which is why the attention span is shorter. The social media attention span for adults is one second shorter than that of a goldfish. When you look at the length of your training, keep those things in mind. For long sessions, create natural break points and split them up.
  4. Speed-up Unimportant Boring Stuff. No one wants to see you type your user name and password into a system. People perform that action dozens of times per day. They get it. If you’re doing a web-based recording, use an editor to speed the video up in that spot. If you’re teaching live, tell them “After you log in…” They all get it. Do the same for anything else in this category. Treat the learners like understand the basics unless you have a reason to assume otherwise. It only takes a few minor ‘time wasters’ to lose engagement for the whole training.
  5. Avoid the Cheese. I’m not talking about cheddar here. Common cheese you see in software training falls into these categories: silly names of example people, unrealistic or unbelievable examples, funny graphics that aren’t, and trying to drop in an unrelated joke as an attention grabber. They don’t generally work. Keep it practical, realistic, believable, and to the point.
  6. Get a Good Voice. If you have narration in your web- or video-based training, nothing is more valuable than a good voice. An example I recently cited was Corbin Anderson in his Camtasia 9 Essentials course on Lynda.com. This guy has a great voice and he kept me engaged for all 8 hours of the training. You can find voice talent relatively cheap if you hunt around, but a good voice is usually worth the price. I’ve even found in-house talent that rocked the project I needed narration for, so start there to save yourself some money.
  7. Beta, beta, edit. Any new training should be tested, then analyzed, then edited, then tested again. Don’t make the rookie mistake of recording and releasing, never to look at it again. If you’re training clients on the use of your software, find a few trusted voices that will give you honest feedback of new material, then get new stuff in front of them first so you can make changes before the whole world sees it.

There you go – 7 quick tips to help you train software better. It’s never too late to go back and fix old projects if you’ve realized that’s necessary. Good luck!


Posted in Technology, Training, Webinars | Leave a comment

Trainer’s Guide to Camtasia 9

I recently taught myself how to record and edit in Camtasia 9. Prior to this, I haven’t personally edited video before, though I’ve managed video editors for years. Because of that, I had a basic idea of good practices, but no hands-on experience on how to actually do editing.

To start my journey, I jumped onto Lynda.com to take their training on Camtasia 9 Essentials. Corbin Anderson does the training and he was excellent – great voice to listen to, very practical in his instructions, and overall did a superb  job. His wealth of experience in video editing shines through in the way he presents and shares easy-to-apply tips. (There are also many videos available direct from Techsmith or on YouTube that teach how to use Camtasia, I just love Lynda.com so I went there.)

After finishing the training, I tackled my first project: a 5-minute screencast on the Fair Labor Standards Act. Camtasia ran smoothly during the recording. I didn’t miss the hiccups, down-sampling, or clunky controls found in other screen recording software I’ve tried in the past (most notably Adobe Captivate.) Once the recording was complete, based on my settings, Camtasia opened right up into editing mode of the video. I found it very simple to follow the basics of what Corbin taught me and turn those into screen zooms, smooth transitions, content highlighting, and even some reinforcement of material.

My next project was similar, except the recording was a video I saved from a live webcast. It came from GoToMeeting and then I imported it into Camtasia for final edits and rendering. Again it went very smooth and the final output was significantly better than the original webcast, since I enhanced the audio and zoomed into text that was hard to read during the live event.

My third project was a full-fledged edit of raw video footage shot on an iPhone, with a secondary audio recording. This required me to pull in the auxiliary audio file, pull in the video file from the iPhone, split out the iPhone audio from the video (as easy as right-clicking and telling Camtasia to split it), sync the two audio tracks, and then delete the iPhone audio so I was left with the iPhone video file, and the external audio file. It was super easy. Then I went through, added effects and transitions, made necessary cuts, and rendered a completed .mp4 for use as a training video.

The only struggles I ran into were associated with learning new software. Techsmith did a great job automating certain common things and making editing effects (called Behaviors) easy. I wish there were more Behaviors available, though it’s possible to create custom ones and I may just need to understand that better.

Overall, a superb product. For anyone in training that need good, basic, easy-t0-use video editing and screen capture software, this is definitely the way to go. It may not have as many bells and whistles as Adobe Premier or other high-end video editing programs, but it also doesn’t carry the price tag. At only $200 per license, it is very easy to get started, and it doesn’t have any monthly subscriptions. It is quick to learn, easy to edit, and outputs a great video when done correctly.

For trainers, the ability to bring in multiple media types and sources, and export the video in a format that works well in eLearning software, make this program a very versatile tool.

Bottom line: highly recommended


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How Routine Causes Speakers to Forget Their Audience

I recently sat through a sermon at church where the pastor, a great guy who also teaches at a Bible College as a Missions Professor, taught at a level that far exceeded the capabilities of the audience. His sermon was very good, but I found myself struggling to stay engaged, partly because I wasn’t mentally prepared for the level he taught at. As I realized this, I glanced around at the audience and saw a sea of glazed over eyes.

Image of an audience

I’ve been told numerous times to know my audience. It’s one of the most common pieces of advice speakers are given, and I have very little doubt this Pastor knows all about it. But because he isn’t the Senior Pastor (and thus doesn’t preach every week) it’s safe to say the majority of the teaching he does is probably in the classroom. The familiarity with his regular audience could be the reason he taught at such a high level in the sermon I heard. (As a side note, it’s usually recommended that Pastors teach at a 6th to 7th grade level.)

Trainers can face a similar issue when they train the same type of audience on a regular basis. Good trainers work on their presentations for maximum impact and efficiency. This work breeds familiarity with their audience and can lead to complacency. Not in a negative way, but in the sense that they don’t have to think about who the audience is because they know it intimately. Over time, this familiarity can lead to instances like the Pastor above, where a suddenly new audience is overlooked.

So how can you avoid this trap? This is one of those times it would be easy to say “just don’t do it.” Awareness of a potential problem can often be enough to prevent this issue. But I generally find in my life that it isn’t practical to just “be aware” of issues. I overcome this through the use of checklists. (One of my all-time favorite books, more because of its impact on my life than for how exciting it was to read, is The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande.)

Reviewing a simple checklist before each training presentation serves as a great reminder of things you know but sometimes may forget. There is a reason pilots review their pre-flight checklist every time – even when they’ve flown the same aircraft for decades.

The checklist might include things like this:

  • Consider the make-up of the audience. Are they:
    • More one gender than another?
    • Predominantly one socioeconomic group?
    • What level of education will they have on average?
    • What previous experience do they have that is relevant to the subject matter?
  • Have I adjusted the curriculum/presentation to fit the time allotted for this event?
  • Have I accounted for the event dress code properly in my wardrobe?
  • Do I have all the A/V worked out correctly given the available connections?

Build your own checklist based on how you train. Keep it generic enough that it will fit most of your similar events. You can always leave blanks at the bottom for customizing it as you plan an event. Most of the time, reviewing it can be a mental exercise that reminds you of key things. Checklists have saved my backside more times than I can count on two hands and two feet. What can you make a checklist on this week that will support you?


Posted in Authoring, Communication, Speaking, Training | Leave a comment

Why Learning Tracks Matter

Sam is a new management trainee that just promoted from being a Paint Department Associate. Her Store Manager recognized strong leadership skills and a solid work ethic over the last two years, and encouraged her to apply when the job was posted by the owner. Now, after earning her promotion, she sits at a fork in the road. A key factor in her success or failure in this new position lies, not in her own hands, but in the efforts her company will put forth, or fail to produce.

This is the point where companies often go wrong. A newly promoted employee, that has shown promise, is left to flounder in their new position without proper training. Often their new supervisor is expected to get them trained, but in many cases their supervisor was never properly trained either. Inconsistent messaging, knowledge gaps, and incorrect methods are learned and then perpetuated to future employees due to the lack of formal training.

In Sam’s case, she faces a fork that either leads her to success, or failure, depending on how well the company is positioned to ensure proper training for her. It’s very easy for a company to put someone in a new position, spend a few weeks “getting them trained,” and then inadvertently hang them out dry because no plan exists for further training or reinforcement of what was trained already. This is where a learning track is most powerful.

Learning tracks are planned pathways, often relevant to a specific job or role in an organization, that take the trainee from introductory knowledge to mastery of their position. This journey is often over a long period of time – even multiple years depending on the complexity of the job. Where a cashier at a hardware store might have a 3-month learning track, a new Vice President might have a track that takes 3-5 years to complete.

An important item to note: learning tracks don’t need to be completely developed (in fact they shouldn’t be) before being rolled out. If a company waits until full development before releasing, it’s highly likely some of the content would be out of date and need to be redone. This could be an unending cycle. As with all curriculum, a learning track is never truly “done.” There will be constant refreshing, adding, and deleting as business needs and role changes dictate.

How to create a learning track:

  1. Start by identifying key behaviors, expectations, abilities, and skills required to do the job properly. This should be part of a job description already, and will just need to be fleshed out more.
  2. Now go deeper. For each of the items identified in step 1, break them down further into tasks the learner will need to know. For example: if one item identified in step 1 is to sell product on a sales floor, break that down into the different ways product is handled: in-stock sales, special orders, product transfers from other stores, large orders, special discounts, sales policies, etc.
  3. Take the identified tasks and group anything that logically could be trained together, and then begin mapping out individual courses that will live in the learning track. If you have multiple tasks that have a customer service component, you group those together to form a customer service course that covers the various aspects of each of those tasks.
  4. Next, prioritize the courses for development and release. It’s obviously impossible to develop everything at once, and as mentioned earlier, you’ll want to release as individual courses are complete. I generally prioritize based on bottom-line impact to the organization, but there can be instances where something else takes precedence due to it’s long-term impact. Make those decisions and create your final priority list.
  5. Get feedback from stakeholders before you move any further. Stakeholders can be the employee in the new job, employees who recently held that job, supervisors, and executives. This is the stage where mistakes are caught and further refinement takes place, and is critical to the overall accuracy, and more importantly, buy-in for the learning track.
  6. After incorporating the relevant feedback from stakeholders, begin producing the individual courses. Build the learning track out over time as courses are produced. Ideally, publish the schedule of courses so learners in the track know when to expect new content. Courses should also give learners the opportunity to test out. If a learner genuinely has knowledge in a given area, it’s a waste of their time and company funds for them to sit through unneeded training. Also remember that courses can take many different forms: live, elearning, self-study, video-based, webcasts, etc. They can even be combinations of many forms (blended learning.) Find the most effective way for each – don’t worry about the form matching among all courses in the track.
  7. Finally, as the track develops, remember to check back on early courses to make sure they are still current and don’t need further tweaking. A good learning track is a living entity that will change and grow over time. It should never be stagnant.

If Sam’s company has an established learning track for her to follow, she’ll receive ongoing support and training all throughout her time growing into the new position. Not only will this support her in the new job, it gives the company continuous feedback on her success or failure.

I realize the process can sounds a bit overwhelming if you’ve never done it, but it’s much easier after your first time. If you are new to the process, find an easy position to start with and just take one step at a time. What can you start on this week?


Posted in Analysis, Development, Management, Training | Leave a comment

How to Fail at Live Training

Lisa woke up slightly terrified about today. Fresh out of college and in her first “real” job as the Training Coordinator for a retail chain, she faced a moment that, at least in her mind, would define her job success – her first live training event. She held sole responsibility for the success or failure of the event and how her boss viewed her in this new role to the company.

For weeks Lisa prepared her two-hour presentation on selling skills and dealing with difficult customers. Her education degree drilled into her the importance of interaction, short training segments to keep the learners engaged, and using visuals that aided the material without becoming the material. But there were so many details surrounding a live event, she was terrified she’d forgotten something in the logistics. She’d spent all her focused effort working on the curriculum.

At the end of the day, Lisa felt her presentation went fairly well. The audience only seemed somewhat engaged and Lisa worried they didn’t learn very much. Post-event surveys showed the audience felt like Lisa did a good job presenting, but there were many negative comments about the room, food, venue, and general logistics of the event. Lisa was puzzled by the negative surveys and comments on “unimportant stuff.” Thankfully, she had a mentor who watched the whole day unfold and was ready to help her understand where things went sideways.

When preparing for a live event there can be hundreds of details to plan, order, track, and verify. Many of these are separate from the actual curriculum planning for the event, and significantly increase the burden on the training team, especially if it’s a one-person team! Building yourself a checklist so things aren’t missed can go a long way towards running a smooth event. Here are some items and questions that should be included:

How will you have the room physically set-up?
Will the attendees be seated in rows of chairs, at round tables, half-round tables, or rectangular tables? [My rule of thumb is always to seat 2 people to a 6-foot table and 3 people to an 8-foot table. This is less than hotels and conference centers normally to (they sit 3 people to a 6-foot table) so it’s a special request, but the attendees are much more comfortable.] Will the set-up need to change part way through the training day due to the agenda? How is this arranged with the banquet staff? What will the traffic flow of the room be like when people need to get up during the event and leave the room? What about at dismissal times such as breaks? Will everyone bottleneck in certain locations? What about in an emergency?

What will the atmosphere of the room be like? (The learning environment)
What type of music will be playing when the attendees arrive and during breaks? [I prefer soft jazz.] How will the room be decorated? What will table center pieces be if sitting at round tables? [One time, for a sporting goods training, my team decorated the tables with spent shotgun shells that were picked up at the local gun range.] What types of banners or graphics will be displayed around the room? What types of banners or graphics will be outside the room so attendees can find it easily? Are there things about the room that will distract attendees such as large windows onto crowded areas, bar TVs, strong heat or air conditioning returns, close proximity to recreation areas such as a pool, etc., and if so, can you minimize their impact?

What type(s) of audio and visual equipment will be needed?
Do you need a microphone? If so, a wireless, lapel, handheld, or other special type? More than one? Do you need speakers to plug into a computer? Do you need a projector or more than 1 due to room size? If there is more than one speaker, will successive speakers be hooking up their own computers to the projector [nightmare! avoid at all costs] or providing their slide decks to the organizer which are then put on a common computer for presentation?

What is the plan for food and refreshments?
Will the tables have water? Will there be other drinks available in the room such as coffee, tea, or sodas? Will there be snacks in the room all the time or only at set breaks that are pre-arranged with the banquet or support staff? Are the snacks chosen to reflect how alert/tired the attendees will be throughout the day when they are served? [On a two day training seminar, I always choose high-sugar snacks for the afternoon to give everyone a sugar rush before the end of the day.] What about breakfast/lunch/dinner? Is there another place for attendees to go eat or does the training site double as the eatery? Is there any possibility that ‘extra’ people will show up for meals such as company leaders? What preferences do the attendees reasonably have for food and drink? [For example: if the group lives on energy drinks during their normal day, Mtn. Dew might be a good, less expensive alternative to stock heavily.]

How will the arrangements foster interaction?
Can people see each other for discussion times? Will attendees have name tags and are they designed so critical information can be seen from a reasonable distance? What about name plates/name tents at the chairs for the speaker to see who attendees are? Can short group discussions happen easily given the seating arrangement or are people too crowded to move around? Are attendees seated in a certain order or can they sit where they will? Does that cause problems one way or the other?

Other considerations:
Do any special arrangements need to be made for key people due to food allergies, travel times, etc.? Is there a back-up plan in case things go wrong? [I’ve seen everything from hotels losing power to projector bulbs exploding in the middle of events.] If the event is heavily attended by one sex or the other, are there alternate bathrooms to use during breaks?

I could keep going, but I think the point is made about how many details there are to cover. Any one of these, done wrong, can be a big enough distraction to the attendees that even the best curriculum fails. My pet peeves: sitting too tight, bad audio (especially when speakers try and convince me their voice is loud enough to not need a mic,) running out of food or drinks, and hotel staff that isn’t easily accessible if something goes wrong.

I’m really lucky to work with an exceptional hotel in Bozeman, MT, for most of my large events. The best hotel staffs will guide new trainers through a lot of these issues if they are asked for help. Never be afraid to ask the venue staff for advice. It’s what they do professionally every day.

Live events aren’t easy, and take way more work than most people realize. Start early and plan in advance as far as possible. (I try to start details up to six months out when possible.) Oh, and once you get all these things nailed down, then you need to start planning the curriculum…

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How a New Computer Taught Me to Be a Better Trainer

What I didn’t expect when I turned my new computer on for the first time at 6:45 am yesterday was a great object lesson on training. I was really excited about the computer because it represented a big improvement in performance that was badly needed when I edit video files and create eLearning content. Now I just needed to tweak the set-up to configure it the way I like it and I’d be all set. Yeah, not so much…


The company I work at has one of the best IT departments I’ve ever seen. They are professional, have excellent documentation, answer problems quickly, and are even friendly when you come back for the tenth time in the same day. (Unfortunately, they are a bunch of Green Bay Packers fans, but hey, no one is perfect. My Patriots put them to shame this year anyway.) In spite of the excellent work they do, my new laptop had a slew of problems when I powered it up and I was stopped cold from working, with no IT staff on-site yet to assist me.

I’ve got an incredibly busy schedule this week because there are two really important live training events on the horizon and both have a ton of details. With a computer that couldn’t run my key programs, I was in trouble. First, Microsoft Office didn’t work, then I was missing my editing software, and then I realized I couldn’t access my OneNote files, then…well, you get the idea. As I worked throughout the day with the IT team to get the computer fully functional, the object lesson on training began to dawn on me.

You see, I was (and still am) really excited about the change over from my old piece of crap Microsoft Surface to a shiny new Dell laptop. With more power, more storage, a better video card, and basically better everything else, my productivity would be noticeably increased. I was like a learner that is excited about a new change they just took training to understand. The change would be good and I was 100% behind it.

Like all change however, it had its deep pain points. Mired in the set-up of my new system, I began to doubt the wisdom of my decision to switch computers. For a short time, this believer in change suddenly became an opponent to it, only because I encountered unexpected obstacles and didn’t immediately see a way through them. I moved from supporter to detractor in the blink of an eye as I faced down the pile of work I wasn’t getting done.

Then, late in the afternoon, Zach swooped in and saved me. Major issues solved, I was suddenly back in the game and moving towards full functionality. Looking back, it’s interesting to analyze the swings in my outlook on the day. Those same swings are what people go through when faced with a new project, a change in procedures, or even a new boss (I just got one of those too.)

As trainers and managers, it’s important to recognize people will face these swings, and do our best to manage the change and help them expect, prepare for, and overcome the obstacles. What’s the old saying – forewarned is forearmed? Set expectations. Help people prepare. Be okay with frustrations and set-backs, but work to overcome them with open communication and realistic timelines. Also, don’t be afraid to tap an expert to overcome obstacles you can’t face alone.

Change is hard. Failing change is harder.


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The Unexpected Value of Being Simple

My wife is on a minimalism kick and has been for years now. I’m the guy that likes stuff – toys, mementos, books, stubs from great movies I attended, neat bookends, old stuffed animals, clever coffee cups…you get the idea. I sometimes think she’d be happy with one picture of a moose on the wall in an otherwise bare room, and truthfully, I used to silently make fun of her for it. “Where’s the character of the room?” I’d ask myself. It’s so borring!  It has no visual excitement. That couch must have throw pillows to be “right.” Of course we need rugs in the kitchen and a little Statue of Liberty in that spot over there…


But like every great wife (and mine is amazing), she’s slowly converted me. There is a certain peace about having less stuff around. Something about visual clutter sort of stresses me out in a way I didn’t used to recognize. So next month, we’re going to play a little minimalism game. Every day we are going to get rid of a number of things equal to the date. So on March 1st, I’m ditching, donating, recycling, selling, or giving away 1 thing. On March 15th, it will be 15 things. By the end of the month I’ll eliminate 496 things. She’s doing the same. So if everything goes like we’re planning, we’ll clear out almost 1000 items from our house. Sounds scary, but I’m really excited to see what the result looks like.

What qualifies as an item? Anything – a pen, that extra pad of sticky notes that we’ve had for 10 years, an old empty storage box kept around just in case, that old computer in the garage that needs to be recycled, the 3rd copy of that same screwdriver, etc. I expect the first half of the month to be pretty easy, but the last half is going to be tough. The only way I’ll ever get through it is with her help and accountability.

As we discussed doing this, it occurred to me that I could do the same thing in my office at work, though on a smaller scale. As work gets more stressful, I find I need to keep my space peaceful and simple so that it doesn’t add to the chaos that is my over-busy life. You know what’s cool about having only one picture on a wall? It’s the only thing you look at. (So make it a great picture!) There aren’t a million other things competing for attention.

It occurs to me that my schedule, volunteer activities, and to-do list (as much as possible) should be this way as well. Being involved in too much stuff just distracts me. Working on multiple things at once just means I do them all with mediocre results. Having my email constantly pinging while I try to get something done gets overwhelming. It turns out, the whole idea of minimalism really does have merit for this guy.

One other thought for my fellow trainers out there. This principle applies to things like eLearning, and learning space design as well. Drop the clutter. Keep it clean, simple, and focused. Then you aren’t fogging the minds of your learners with unnecessary chaos. You can even apply this same principle to curriculum design.


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